- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
Earlier this month, Libya’s Supreme Military Court reviewed an appeal by 19 Ukrainians, three Belarusians, and two Russians who stand accused of aiding the regime of Muammar Qaddafi by helping his forces to maintain military equipment during the revolution. The defendants maintain that they are engineers who were working for an oil company and were not politically motivated to assist the Qaddafi regime.
The group was arrested on August 27, 2011, just after Tripoli was liberated by revolutionary militias but the circumstances that led to their arrest are not clear. In March 2012, three of the Ukrainians were cleared by the Libyan authorities and sent home due to efforts and negotiations of Ukrainian diplomats, while the rest remained in detention. In June 2012, the Tripoli Military Court sentenced the remaining Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians to ten years of imprisonment. One of the Russians was sentenced for life.
During the revolution, Qaddafi’s regime was repeatedly accused of hiring foreign mercenaries, mainly from neighboring African countries, to help his troops crush the popular revolt. It produced a major backlash against foreigners in Libya immediately after the revolution and led to the arrest of thousands of suspected mercenaries.
Libya’s current relationship with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is anything but friendly. Many Libyans hold the view that these countries supported Qaddafi during the revolution and that our relations with them should remain distant. Russia repeatedly criticized the international NATO-led military operation in Libya following the U.N. resolution on "targeted measures" to protect civilians. Russia then abstained during the Security Council vote and did not veto the resolution.
Indeed, Qaddafi had a good relationship with Russian and some Eastern European leaders. When Qaddafi was losing friends fast and the popular revolt against his regime gained momentum, Belarus’ dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, stood by him until the end: There were even reports that his government supported Qaddafi with arms and fighting forces. Then there was the very personal connection between Qaddafi and his blonde Ukrainian nurse, who was described as one of his closest confidantes. It’s said that Qaddafi never travelled anywhere without her by his side.
Despite Libyan popular opinion, the government has made it clear that it will work to normalize relations with all nations regardless of their position during the revolution (and especially concerning Russia). During a press conference, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan emphasized the historical and strategic reasons for his government to have a good working relationship with Moscow. Russia was Libya’s main weapons supplier before the revolution, and the new authorities are currently using many of the same weapons to equip security units. In addition, Libya cannot afford to be enemies with a powerful state, especially when it is seeking to lift the arms embargo imposed on the country by the U.N. Security Council.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has been assisting the detained Ukrainians throughout the trial, and continues to maintain their innocence. If the convictions against them are upheld, Ukraine will seek to have them repatriated to serve out their sentences. The Russian Foreign Ministry has called the sentences "unfair and unjustifiably harsh," and is urging the Libyan authorities to release its citizens and allow their return home. However, both countries expressed respect for Libya’s sovereignty and its judicial procedures.
Earlier this week, Libya’s General National Congress (the country’s interim legislature) made an amendment to the Military Penal Code, banning military courts from trying civilians and ordering that all ongoing military trials involving civilians be halted. The amendment also emphasized that cases involving both civilians and military personnel would fall under the jurisdiction of the public prosecutor, not the military. (In this case the public prosecutor has preference over the military prosecutor.) This amendment could halt the appeal process for the defendants, and instead they may face a new trial in a civilian court.
This trial is only one episode of the many challenges that post-Qaddafi Libya will face with the once-friendly regimes in Eastern Europe, especially since Russia and Ukraine are trying to safeguard business deals that were signed with the Qaddafi’s regime. (These include long-term arms deals as well as agreements with Russian oil and construction companies.) Libya is currently reviewing all of the former regime’s major contracts. If it turns out that the contracts signed with the Russian and Eastern European companies were based more on political grounds than on solid economic judgment, the contracts could be cancelled, complicating Libya’s future relations with the countries concerned.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.